How To Bring Empathy into Practice?

Oct 7, 2015 | Business & Consulting


A fearful dog: empathizing with the animal is essential in any behavior modification case. Graphic © Can Stock Photo

Drawing empathy into our training practice is so important.

As positive reinforcement training is involves multiple choices (such do we shape, capture or lure this behavior? What sort of reward should we choose; food or something else?   What is our secondary reinforcer going to be – a clicker/our voice or something else) all these choices require we make intelligent, informed decisions for the benefit of our non-human student as we work. What works for one dog won’t be so effective, reinforcing or clear to another.  In order to make emotionally and intellectually intelligent choices we need to be able to understand the dog sitting in front of us.  To do this we not only need to draw on our professional knowledge of animal behavior, emotion and cognition but to reflect and empathise with that animal.

The trouble with empathy is it tends to throw up a lot of important questions for professionals. The most common one is; “but aren’t I being anthropomorphic?”   This is a fair point. It would certainly be of no use to the animals we are working with if we simply project our own feelings onto them, anymore than it is useful for you to believe that your partner is happy simply because you are.

I often come across people who feel very uncomfortable about using empathy in practice.   It’s not scientific they tell me, or they believe its anthropomorphic (or both).   To tell the truth, before I studied outside of ‘hard’ science and delved into anthropology, sociology and philosophy – I too felt very uncomfortable with anything I perceived to be intangible or unscientific.

I had a lot of emotional learning to do and realised (after a lot of soul searching and reflection) that what I was actually practising was something I knew from animal behavioural science – B. F. Skinner’s ‘cognitive dissonance’.   We talk about cognitive dissonance in the world of animal behaviour but often forget it might apply to ourselves!

My avoidance or disregarding of anything I perceived as ‘unscientific’ was me practicing cognitive dissonance – the unconscious process of dismissing opinions (no matter how valid) that threaten our worldview and engaging and referencing only those things that fuel our pre-existing views.   This very act blocks us from holistically engaging with the animals we work with.

Anthropomorphism as a term is something we need to think carefully about.   We need to be clear what we mean by it but also how we can easily fall into the trap of thinking every subjective or intuitive notion we have is anthropomorphism.   With a multi-disciplinary background I have explored a wide range of views on this subject and I think the following are particularly salient in helping us to recognize what is, and isn’t, helpful when we are working and needing to ‘feel for’ the animal we are training with without simply projecting ourselves onto them.

The first point comes from Marc Bekoff in this wonderful book The Emotional Lives of Animals.

“What we are learning is that hard science is confirming what our intuitions so often tell us; animals express emotions in ways we are naturally able to understand”.

This view is supported by the research of Bloom & Freidman (2013) who found that untrained people were very capable of accurately identifying dog emotions in a controlled experiment. This research actually suggested untrained people were better are predicting aggression than those with professional training. Perhaps this highlights how we really need to trust our intuition as well our intellect!

A point of real interest is the cultural factor. Frans de Waal explains that

“Japanese culture does not emphasize the difference between people and animals and so is relatively free from the spell of anti-anthropomorphism”.

So in Japan we would not even have to concern ourselves with the issue!

To engage further with multi-disciplinary thinking sociologist and anthropologist Kay Milton has some fascinating things to say about anthropomorphism.   Milton feels the label ‘anthropomorphism’ is used as distancing device. She observes that science within our society is considered the ‘arbiter of truth’ and perceived ‘rational’ whereas “culturally we consider emotionality directly opposite to rationality’.   She goes on to observe that the opposition between emotional and rational is deeply entrenched because to be ‘emotional’ is used to discredit people.

So how can we be empathic without projecting ourselves onto the dogs and other animals we are working with?

Being empathic for me is about listening with more than your ears; being aware of the context of the situation; recognizing the feelings of the other being and acting accordingly.

When we’re training a dog for example this might mean we start off thinking we’re going to teach a new behavior in the garden by shaping it.   We go outside with our treats and clicker only to find the neighbor is cutting up logs next door with a chainsaw and our dog is distracted at best or even fearful of the noise. To blatt through this and continue with the session is not only setting ourselves up for failure but also ignores the needs of the dog (and potentially adds an extraneous punishment if the dog is fearful of the noise).   You could argue that using the clicker can positively reinforce this frightening noise but a truly terrified dog in this context is not going to find this situation positive – this is not empathic. An empathic trainer would retreat from the situation, recognize the dog finds this noise very aversive and in a future training session set up a session to deal with that fear with an empathic, progressive desensitization as opposed to flooding which we can accidently fall into the trap of if we do not act with empathy.

As a social science researcher I have to engage with the same skills carrying out observational studies.   I find that to engage empathically without projecting you need to become good at three things; self-reflection, conscious awareness and observation!

There is a plethora of fascinating research in how to develop your empathy skills here are just a few to get started with:

Explore imaginary worlds – research by Keith Oatley PhD reports that people who read fiction are more attuned to others’ emotions and intentions! This doesn’t mean we should slip into a fantasy world but we can use what we know about dogs and our experience of dogs (or other species) to infer what their experience of the situation they are in might be.

Practice Mindfulness – to be mindful means to maintain a conscious awareness of our own thoughts, feelings and the environment. Not only does it help us to being mindfully aware of others by perspective taking on the others position it is also shown to reduce stress in medical students and is actively promoted and used with human medical care (Reiss 2015).

Play Games together – this is a really interesting point as Marc Bekoff’s research into dogs playing demonstrates how they attune and coordinate with one another in order to keep the play going. Scientists have observed that across many species playing and having fun together strengthens your bond. As Marc Bekoff’s research on dog-dog play suggests, dogs learn to synchronise, understand and ‘get’ one another through play.   We can benefit from that too, play with your dog and learn about him/her (Karen London & Patricia McConnell have written a whole book about playing with your dog called ‘Play Together Stay Together!).

And don’t forget – being empathic also leads to better relationships with your human students too!


Bekoff, M. (2008) The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy and Why They Matter. California, New World Library.

Bloom, T. & Friedman, H. (2013) Classifying dogs’ (Canis familiaris) facial expressions from photographs. Behavioural Processes 96, 1-10.

de Waal, F. 2010. The Age of Empathy. Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society. New York, Random House.

Milton, K. 2002. Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. Oxon, Routledge Books.

Oatley, K. 2011. Empathy & Fiction. Accessed at:

Reiss, H. 2015. Accessed E.M.P.A.T.H.Y ™ at –

Shapiro, S.L., Schwartz, G. E., Bonner, G. 1998.   Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students. Journal of Behavioural Medicine. 21:6. Pp581-599.